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PTSD from unhealthy relationships

By Norman Araiza

We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder these days, usually referring to veterans suffering from trauma experienced in the battleground. There is however, another form of the disorder that many suffer from having never left the relative safety of their homes. I’m referring to victims who have survived domestic abuse and those that merely witnessed the abuse. It’s not limited to physical or emotional suffering. It can also include a less recognized subset of the disorder, which stems from chronically unmet needs in a relationship.

Rebecca, an attractive 58-year-old childless divorcee, came to my office complaining of her inability to form and maintain close intimate relationships. She was the daughter of a physically abusive, alcoholic father who regularly pushed her mother around but rarely hit Rebecca. “It wasn’t the actual hitting that was so bad, it was the threats that came from the angry outbursts that I hated so much.” Her mother was a weak introverted, stay-at-home mom who never had friends. Her parents discouraged friendships and she never felt secure enough to invite anyone to her home. When he wasn’t drunk and being abusive, her father was emotionally distant and spent most of his time in his workshop. When she met her husband, Tom, she felt a strange comfort in his presence. Other men seemed to talk too much and she felt pressured and inadequate to make conversation. In the early days the long periods of silence were acceptable, but after many years she felt a longing for something more. Tom would lose himself in his hobby, painting miniature war figures, and was quick to anger when she would try to get his attention. She regularly went to bed alone and usually woke to find him off to work already. When she complained that she needed more, his retort was always “You knew who I was when you married me.”

Rebecca had been divorced almost three years when I met her. She had worked in a one-person law firm for 20 years so when she received a sizable inheritance she summoned the courage for divorce and opted for an early retirement. As our sessions progressed she became aware of her chronically unmet needs through a recurring dream where she would find herself alone in a rudderless rowboat drifting in an endless sea. She had no food, water, shelter, oars or companionship. She began to understand how her emotionally neglected childhood predisposed her to feel comfortable with emotionally distant men, which resulted in more of the same. She grew to understand how her shyness and tendency toward non-disclosure forced men to talk more and ask questions of her which she interpreted as intrusive and resulted in her feeling of detachment.

I encouraged her to attend a local ACOA group. Adult Children of Alcoholics where intimate connections with others were easier due to the commonality the group shared. In Rebecca’s case, healing was not a great issue but dealing with the aftermath of her traumatic childhood was indeed a challenge. Her therapy involved increasing self-esteem, developing active listening skills, exercises in extending conversation and experimenting with interpersonal risk and disclosure.

Early parental programming often determines our comfort level in mate selection and without intervention we may feel as Rebecca felt, compelled toward unconsciously continuing her cycle of unmet needs.

Trauma is not necessarily limited to short-term distressing experiences but can be the result of long-term deprivation, which may have long lasting psychological effects.

Norman Araiza M.A. is an American trained psychotherapist enjoying a limited practice in San Miguel. He is available for consultation at 152 7842, email:


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